In 2018, Tahlequah, a female orca from the Southern Resident community of the Pacific Northwest, gave birth, but her baby died shortly after. Tahlequah swam with the dead calf for 17 days before letting it go. During this “tour of grief,” the other female orcas in her pod took turns carrying the calf in an incredibly moving display of maternal support. I’d forgotten about this heartbreaking story, which Grace Loh Prasad mentions in the opening of her recent essay at The Offing.
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The Orca and the Spider: On Motherhood, Loss, and Community
“Try as I might, there is no material stronger than kinship.”
In this reflective and braided piece, Prasad explores the bonds of family, building a life as a mother, and the need for community, among other musings. What’s it like to live thousands of miles away from your loved ones, and what happens when that family is gone? What’s the alternative, and what sort of network can take its place? I’m grateful that my parents are healthy and still live in my childhood home, less than an hour away, and that I’m able to see them often. For Prasad and her parents and brother, an ocean came between them. She writes about planting roots in the U.S., but no matter where she built a life, that family unit would remain intact, even if they weren’t all physically together.
Although my brother and my parents weren’t present in my daily life, they provided an invisible scaffolding that I didn’t realize I depended on until they were gone. All the things that proved I had a home in California—house, job, passport, driver’s license, ability to vote—were the result of choices I had made, rather than natural ties to a culture and community. It was a one-sided equation: I could claim it, but it did not claim me. The only true unit of belonging I had that was intrinsic and undeniable and could not be undone, that understood my complicated identity without needing an explanation, was my family.
I constantly think about the sacrifices my husband, who is British, had made when we got married at San Francisco City Hall a decade ago. Like Prasad, he adopted California as his home, choosing a future and day-to-day life without his family and friends in the U.K. But I also know that he will never fully feel like he belongs here.
In Grace Loh Prasad’s Longreads essay, “Uncertain Ground,” she realizes that mourning is complicated when home and homeland aren’t the same place.
My daughter was born in 2018. She’s an only child, and her cousins, who are much older and live four hours away, are hardly playmates. When she was a baby, we lived in a small town in California’s wine country; it lacked ethnic diversity, but we liked the slower pace and rural lifestyle. But we hadn’t made any real friends: people to text spontaneously for playdates, or to hang out and get a beer with. In fact, since we got married, we haven’t really made any new good friends as a couple. That has felt even more isolating as new parents.
We’ve spoken over the years about why that is: Are we too introverted? Are we not able to find people who share our interests? The answer to both is no. But it’s hard to make new friends as adults, and as individuals we miss our existing friends — across the U.S., the U.K., and other parts of the world — and would love to strengthen those relationships, especially friends who now also have kids. Geography, of course, makes this challenging, and these last several years, it’s been impossible.
Even before coming upon Prasad’s essay, I’d been thinking about the word “community.” We’ve moved seven times in 10 years, and have lived in four different homes with our 4-year-old daughter. We’ve now settled in Berkeley, have gotten acquainted with parents of her preschool friends, and live in a lively and diverse neighborhood that’s walkable and accessible to so much — community gardens, parks and playgrounds, free family-friendly events. Yet we still feel as socially adrift as before. But why? What are we really looking for?
Prasad reflects on raising a child without a family network, but also writes about a type of tight-knit community, beyond blood ties, that I’ve longed for.
I envy my friends who have healthy parents that live nearby, who have the ability to slip out for a spontaneous date night or to take off on a weeklong, kid-free vacation. How I wish we had occasional help that we didn’t have to pay for—something my friends take for granted—although it was never about the money. How I wish I had a sibling or cousin with children in the same city so that we could send our kids to the same school, share dinners and holidays, coordinate vacation plans, and so on. How I wish my son could grow up with a clan, a group of mothers and children traveling together through life like a pod of orcas, always looking out for each other, secure in their belonging to something bigger than a family of three.
Prasad also writes about the maternal qualities of spiders, recounting the first time she saw “Maman,” a giant spider steel sculpture by artist Louise Bourgeois, in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills. I saw this sculpture when I visited Japan; I remember it to be massive and menacing, not at all the strong and nurturing motherly figure that Prasad describes. I’d simply never considered a spider in this way.
Although monstrously large, as if made for a vintage Japanese disaster movie, getting close to Maman brings an unexpected feeling of intimacy. You can stand underneath her. You can be enclosed and sheltered by her, the same way your mother once enveloped and surrounded you. The spider mother appears delicate with her fragile skinny legs, but she is literally made of steel.
Maman is stronger than she looks. She is your first and forever home, and she weaves the world into existence.
Prasad describes her own mother as “a weaver of community, responsible for maintaining the social fabric that cushioned our lives,” and questions whether she has been able to do and build the same for her son. This hits me in the gut: I know that as parents, we’ve only just begun to build our family’s life, but I wonder whether we’ve found the right corner of the world to weave that web.
The older he gets, the more I worry that I have not done enough to knit a tapestry that will enfold and protect him, that will open doors and give him room to stretch while keeping him out of harm’s way, that will imprint a pattern so deep and recognizable that he can always find his way home. This is what I am most afraid of: that I will be exposed as the mother who cannot weave, who cannot on her own produce the work of many hands, the unseen web that no one notices but everyone needs. Try as I might, there is no material stronger than kinship.